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Letter to the ABA Journal re Thimerosal and Autism:

Here's a letter I wrote to the ABA Journal:

I am appalled by the credulous and sloppy article in the July 2006 ABA Journal [not online] discussing litigation over the purported link between autism and thimerosal. Reporter Wendy N. Davis is simply incorrect when she writes that "many scientists have come to believe that thimerosal may cause autism" and that "scientists are divided" on the issue. In fact, only a fringe group of junk scientists believe this, and the thesis that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism is directly contrary to reams of data [e.g., here] showing that removing thimerosal from vaccines has no effect on autism rates. Apparently, however, Ms. Davis was too lazy to actually research the issue herself, and instead relied on what she terms "published accounts" of a 2001 study, along with a much-debunked [e.g., here] article in Rolling Stone (of all places) by attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The ABA Journal can and should do a lot better than this.

I should note that I have no relationship of any sort with any of the players in the thimerosal litigation.

I was especially saddened to see this piece because Mark Hansen, who used to write for the ABA Journal, wrote some pathbreaking pieces debunking junk science and junk scientists such as uber-charlatan Louise Robbins.

Frank Drackmann (mail):
Don't feel bad, I've know physicians,(mostly female for some reason) who buy into the whole vaccines are evil camp, and neglect to vaccinate their kids. The really unethical thing is they are in a position to falsly document that their kids WERE vaccinated so that they can still go to school. I give them credit, most of them don't try to pass on their beliefs to their patients, partly because of fear the patients will report them,and partly because its a money maker for the clinic.
7.15.2006 10:38am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Is the ABA becoming a branch of the ATLA?

I am not an expert on any of this, and maybe we will have one or more of our local experts jump in here later.

Nevertheless, the connection makes little sense. Some/many autistics have slightly different brain configurations than the rest of the population. For example, one study found larger cerrebellums and smaller corpus callosums (esp. smaller middle and back lobes) in autistics. Another found that in the cerebellum there was a noticeable reduction in the number of Purkinje cells. Another that the neurons in the amygdala and the hippocampus were smaller in autistics. Also, interestingly, these differences are often found in autistics' non-autistic relatives. Indeed, a genetic link is also implicated by the Wired article on "Geek Syndrome" a couple of years ago, which pointed out the abnormally high number of engineers, etc., in the ancestry of autistics and those with AS.

The importance of all this is that it is highly likely that much, if not most, of this differenciation is done in utero. That means pre-vacine, and, thus, pre-thimerosal.
7.15.2006 10:47am
Hans Gruber (www):
It would seem that she overstated her case when she said "scientists are divided." So, too, I think you have overstated your case when you say the only people who express concern over the 50% mercury content of Thimerosal, a preservative used in vaccines, are
"fringe junk scientists." According to the CDC, the PHS and the AAP concluded that Thimerosal should not be used in vaccinations of children under 12 (as a precautionary measure). Given that Thimerosal is in a phase-out for pediatric vaccinations, in several years we will be able to test the mercury-autism hypothesis. I am agnostic on this issue, but I look forward to you providing some facts which support your conclusions.
7.15.2006 10:51am
Hans Gruber (www):
"Don't feel bad, I've know physicians,(mostly female for some reason) who buy into the whole vaccines are evil camp, and neglect to vaccinate their kids."

This is a different issue than the whole "vaccines are evil" thing. Thimerosal is a preservative used in vacccines which contains mercury. The objection to the use of Thimerosal is not an objection to vaccines generally, but to the exposure of mercury from this specific preservative.
7.15.2006 10:58am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
My big problem with not vaccinating kids is that it really depends on "herd immunity". If enough of the population is vaccinated, then the rest is relatively safe. And, thus, a number of parents opt out of at least some vacinations (pertussis or whooping caugh in particular).

There are two problems here. First, the ethics of free riding. Yes, there are potential side effects of some vaccines. But the side effects, on a population level, are significantly lower than the effects of the disease. Thus, those opting out to protect their own kids are free riding on the vaccinations of the rest of the populations.

And secondly, it doesn't always work. I remember a couple of years ago, when pertussis ran through a school in Boulder. A bunch of highly educated parents opted out of vaccinating their kids, presuming, incorrectly as it turns out, that their own kids would be protected by herd immunity. But, when, as here, enough opt out, herd immunity is lost. And the result was a lot of very sick kids.
7.15.2006 11:06am
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Is it just me or is this post the opposite of what the internet is for? There are zero links to any of the things Bernstein mentions!

Pretty bad messenger-shooting fallacy in there as well. "Of all places" indeed.
7.15.2006 11:16am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Thimerosal (or thimerosal or Merthiolate) is apparently fairly nasty stuff, but as Hans Gruber points out, it is in phase out for vaccines, at least in the 1st World. It is an antiseptic and antifungal agent. It kills susceptable bacteria by causing them to autolyze (dissentigrate). The need for it is apparently obviated by the use of single dosage vaccines.
7.15.2006 11:18am
Fran (mail) (www):
Mercury poisoning and vaccinations are thought by many/most to be the hyperventalations of paranoid people. What if that's not true.

Being very skeptical I would put my weight behind this article from Newsmax:

“In parting, we offer a simple solution to the problem. In the past, vaccines contained thimerosal because it helped prevent bacterial contamination in bottles containing dozens or hundreds of doses. We suggest packaging vaccines in individual doses, thereby obviating the need for any preservative. A bit more expensive, perhaps – but your children and grandchildren are worth it!"

In fact we did. My wife and I did not have our son vaccinated.
We do understand the concept of the herd effect about vaccinations. Our view is that sometimes the herd effect, ie: running over a cliff, can have negative consequences.

A few people have mentioned that thimerosal is being phased out. Why phase it out if there's no problem. I can't believe that this would be happening just to satisfy a few 'junk scientists'.
7.15.2006 11:29am
Trevor Morrison (mail):
You might be right on the merits, but you don't actually think your overheated rhetoric ("too lazy"; "of all places") is likely to persuade anyone, do you? So why include these little swipes? Catharsis?
7.15.2006 11:39am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Trevor, people are literally getting sick and even dying because of hysterical, false claims about the dangers of vaccines. Reporters owe a duty to the public to do at least minimal due diligence before spreading these lies. Given the stakes involved, and the extremely poor reporting involved, I'd say my rhetoric was restrained. Are you seriously going to argue that relying on a journalistic article by an activist lawyer for a very significant public health point is not evidence of laziness?
7.15.2006 11:46am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Ship, do you really want to argue that Rolling Stone is a reliable source for scientific information?
7.15.2006 11:47am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Fran,

You answered your own question. Thimerosal isn't danger, but if people like yourself aren't vaccinating kids because of the hysteria surrounding it, and an alternative is available, it's certainly worth it. Moreover, the companies are trying to limit their exposure to litigation, just as Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals pulled the perfectly safe morning sickness remedy Bendectin from the market because of a combination of media hysteria and litigation.
7.15.2006 11:55am
MikeD:
Hi Fran (and others...)

"A few people have mentioned that thimerosal is being phased out. Why phase it out if there's no problem. I can't believe that this would be happening just to satisfy a few 'junk scientists'."

I'm a scientist in vaccine formulations development, and I can confirm that the thimerosal phase-out is indeed just to satisfy a few "junk scientists". Unfortunately, junk scientists sometimes have a noticeable impact on public opinion and thus sales. Ask a realtor trying to sell a house near high-tension lines.

One thing I have to admit, it doesn't hurt us much to go away from thimerosal, since patient/physician preferences are leaning towards individual doses anyway. We would probably be switching over at this time just for marketing considerations, even if there was no thimerosal issue. Basically, the engineers have figured out how to load alot of product directly into syringes cheaply and efficiently (and most important, aseptically), so we might as well. Also, there are other substances that can be used to enhance shelf-life.
7.15.2006 11:59am
Paco (mail) (www):
I should add that the Rolling Stone article relied upon purports to quote a congressional staffer whom I am certain never spoke to Bobby Kennedy and who never worked on vaccines. Good to see the cycle of dishonesty continuing.
7.15.2006 12:04pm
Hans Gruber (www):
"A few people have mentioned that thimerosal is being phased out. Why phase it out if there's no problem. I can't believe that this would be happening just to satisfy a few 'junk scientists'."

There is no question that among the vast majority of infants and adults, thimerosal is tolerated well insofar as there are no obvious symptoms. It is difficult to study the effect because at most we are talking about a fraction of percent of infants who, for whatever reason, may have some sort of sensitivity or vulnerability to ethyl mercury in thimerosal.

The information we have about toxic levels of mercury exposure are for adults, not infants. We already know that fetuses lack the ability to metabolize mercury well, which is why pregnant women are not supposed to eat diets high in mercury.

But, to answer your question, the reason thimerosal is being phased out, besides allaying public concern, is that it's the prudent thing to do, even in the absence of compelling evidence. It is prudent because: Mercury is one of the most toxic substances known to man. Infants probably have an impaired ability to cleanse their bodies of mercury. An FDA study concluded that thimerosal containing vaccines may increase mercury levels above EPA recommended levels (though not FDA or WHO standards). And, finally, though the vast majority of people show no adverse side effects, it's difficult to rule out the possibility that some infants may be particularly vulnerable to mercury toxicity.
7.15.2006 12:04pm
Trevor Morrison (mail):
David, the question is not whether to fault a journalist for inadequate research, but how to do it. I know almost nothing about this issue, and I think I'm persuadable by rational argument. But your rhetoric made me think that if I ever want to get the straight deal on this issue, I shouldn't turn to you.
7.15.2006 12:20pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Trevor, I think you are mistaking the appropriate tone for a scholarly article with the appropriate tone of a 100-word letter to the editor.
7.15.2006 12:25pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
(The purpose of which is not to persuade skeptics, but to give the editors a wakeup call, and alert readers to the problems with how the piece was researched.)
7.15.2006 12:27pm
Hans Gruber (www):
David Berstein,

You did a very poor job of educated people about the background of the controversy or the substance of your claims. Most of your letter is name-calling. Letter to the editor or not, that's not the best way to get one's point across, is it?
7.15.2006 12:28pm
Trevor Morrison (mail):
Well, David, maybe we just have different ideas about the point of writing a letter like this (and then posting it on a blog). My first comment asked whether you thought your letter would persuade anyone. The premise of that question was that letters of this sort are, or are at least sometimes, intended to persuade. I think tone affects persuasiveness.

It's like the old joke about lawyers in oral argument: if the law is against you, argue the facts; if the facts are against you, argue the law; and if the facts and law are against you, bang on the table. I think you're banging on the table here, and I wonder why.

But perhaps your aim in writing the letter and posting it on a blog was not to persuade, in which case I agree that the appropriate tone might be different.
7.15.2006 12:34pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Trevor, I think what your missing is that arguing that there is no sound scientific evidence of a link between autism and Thimerosal is not something that I need to argue; it's what any objective review of the research will show. The article's flaw was not in failing to give "equal time" to the competing sides (though it didn't do so), but in not doing the basic research that would have led the writer to discover the consensus on the issue, and not falsely report that there is a split of mainstream scientific opinion on the issue. My letter is thus focused not on the nonexistence of a causal relationship, which is a given, but on why the reporting.
7.15.2006 12:39pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
And last note from me on this: several of my junk-science related articles have focused on the role the media has played in promoting junk science, in turn spawning and encouraging litigation, and in turn discouraging innovation and harming the public health. There needs to be less focus on debating scientific non-issues stirred up by political activists, attorneys, and the media, and more on promoting responsibility for all these actors.
7.15.2006 12:41pm
Trevor Morrison (mail):
David, the facts I'm referring to with the analogy to the oral argument joke aren't the facts about whether there's sound evidence of a link between Thimerosal and autism. I'm not suggesting you needed to lay all that out in the letter. Rather, the relevant fact that your letter seeks to establish is the fact, if indeed it is one, that the reporter did inadequate research. And it's there that I think your rhetoric disserved you.

E.g., you note in your letter that the author relied in part on "published accounts" of a 2001 study. You don't say anything more about that. Instead, you just cast the author as "too lazy" and make fun of her citation to the Rolling Stone article. This risks leaving readers (or at least this reader) wondering why you went with name-calling instead of saying more about the inadequacy of relying on published accounts of the 2001 study. Maybe those accounts are unreliable; maybe they aren't. But after reading your letter I spent less time thinking about that issue and more time thinking about the name-calling (including, I would add, the "uber-charlatan" reference in your blog post). Maybe I'm alone in that reaction, but if not then your choice of words didn't help your cause.
7.15.2006 1:01pm
Inspector Callahan (mail):
I'm going to bat for Mr. Bernstein on this one.

One of the reasons hysterical junk science claims get the media attention is because of their loud tone. The same type of tone that Trevor (and others) castigate Mr. Bernstein for.

I think it's high time to loudly challenge this B.S, and to hold those spreading it accountable, in a vocal way. Obviously, being nice about it doesn't work - or this crap wouldn't be spreading.


But your rhetoric made me think that if I ever want to get the straight deal on this issue, I shouldn't turn to you.


If Trevor can't handle heated "rhetoric" on a blog, maybe he should grow thicker skin, or stick to print media.

TV (Harry)
7.15.2006 1:19pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Ship, do you really want to argue that Rolling Stone is a reliable source for scientific information?

I'm not saying anything of the kind, but simply because an article appears in a music magazine (even one that published Stephen Glass) doesn't mean a priori that claims made within are false. "Of all places" is just an attempt to assert a claim is false without doing any work.

Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib story in a weekly magazine that has NYC movie and jazz club listings, "of all places." So what?
7.15.2006 1:29pm
Gob Bluth:
Quick note.
It is of course one thing to base litigation and therefore liability on drug manufacturers for autism rates. It is entirely another to accuse folks who opt out of vaccines as harming anyone. If anything, they are harming themselves. Where are all the libertarians on this?? Are parents not allowed to make this decision anymore?
7.15.2006 1:39pm
Trevor Morrison (mail):
It's not that I "can't handle the heat[]" or that the rhetoric otherwise offends my delicate sensibilities. It's that, in my view, the rhetoric doesn't help David's cause. The fact that Inspector Callahan evidently likes the rhetoric doesn't really bear on my point, since clearly s/he already agreed with David on the merits.

My point is that the rhetoric doesn't help persuade those who are not yet -- but are willing to be -- persuaded. And that should matter to people like David and Inspector Callahan, because if "this crap" is "spreading," they evidently need more people to come around to their point of view.
7.15.2006 1:39pm
Ship Erect (mail) (www):
Irony: debunking an article published in Rolling Stone (of all places) with a blog post by Orac The Liberator, somewhere deep in Federation space.
7.15.2006 1:46pm
TJIT (mail):
Gob Bluth,

The problem with your argument is herd immunity. If enough individuals in a population are immune to an infection because they have been vaccinated the virus can't establish itself. The fewer people that have been vaccinated the easier it is for a infection to get established in a population.

Parents should be able to opt out of vaccination. This does create higher infection risks for the rest of the population and these parents are in fact free riding on those parents who did have their children vaccinated.
7.15.2006 2:03pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):
Sometimes one writes to pursuade an audience. Sometimes one writes to call out a purveyor of clap-trap.

This letter was clearly intended to do the latter, and engaging in a lengthy, reasoned, factual rebuttal would have been counterproductive since it would only have served to provide and aura of legitimacy to the original clap-trap.

Sometimes it is necessary, apropriate and effective to call egregious stupidity for what it is.
7.15.2006 2:04pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
It is entirely another to accuse folks who opt out of vaccines as harming anyone. If anything, they are harming themselves. Where are all the libertarians on this?? Are parents not allowed to make this decision anymore?

More accurately, they are harming their children, not themselves, which is different.

As I understand the libertarian impulse, it is not "never criticize anyone for anything." It is "don't use government compulsion for everything." Nothing wrong with saying "that's bad for your children, you shouldn't do it."

Parents are, in fact, allowed to make this decision. And the rest of us are allowed to say: that's a very foolish thing to do.
7.15.2006 2:17pm
Gob Bluth:
TJIT,

Perhaps I don't understand the effect of vaccines. Are you saying that children will contract a disease for which they have been vaccinated? I thought that's what made vaccines great - that you got immunity on the cheap - never having to contract the disease.

I appreciate your agreement on opting out and I understand that parents who opt out are in a sense free-riding. I should also note that states attempt to enforce vaccination by requiring vaccines to attend school (with appropriate religious exceptions). Of course, I doubt there are as many Christian Scientists as there are free-riders.
7.15.2006 2:17pm
TJIT (mail):
Ship Erect,

Link to current Orac site

A link to a current post of his on the mercury / autism issue can be found here.

"On a mission to discredit any and all evidence of a mercury-autism linkage"

In the about section of the blog you will find the following

"Respectful Insolence is a repository for the ramblings of the aforementioned pseudonymous surgeon/scientist concerning medicine and quackery, science and pseudoscience, history and pseudohistory, politics, and anything else that interests him (or pushes his buttons)."

The site is written by a physician. Despite the funny name (the background of which is explained in the about section)it appears the author has the background and training to be competent to comment on the technical aspects of this issue.
7.15.2006 2:20pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Opting out of the vaccinations is flirting with the fallacy of composition. What may be good for one individual is not good when many do the same.
7.15.2006 2:21pm
Fran (mail) (www):
Re: Junk Science

The concept of ‘junk science’ owes its reputation to many things. ONE: some scientists promote/deceive others to 1. advance their notoriety, 2. persistent belief, 3. junk science. TWO: 1.they are on to something beyond provable belief (not helpful, but reasonable) 2. they are way ahead of the curve.

Science is littered with accomplishments that eventually were proven to have negative effects. Some examples:
*health food nuts: after the early industrialization of food processing in this country, people who considered the food industry to be all about ‘selling’ and ‘making money’ were labeled wackos. The reality: trans fats, corn syrup, nitrates. The results: vegetarians, organic foods, pesticide free food.

I would think that there is enough circumstantial evidence available, regarding the exploitation of science and advances, to make us all want to take the safer path...no thimerasol.

Tuskegee, DDT, asbestosis, smoking, lead poisoning...gasoline, agent orange, Merck.

How many times do ‘real scientists’ have to be shown to be beholden to their other master, (Their Company), to incite a semblance of real skepticism in the scientific community, before the wacko community has to ‘prove the point’?

This is only one issue. There have, are and will be many others that will confront the Human Community over the next few decades as computers assist the scientific community in advancing their edge on all sorts of things: genetically modified food for example.

My governing question is this:
What should be responsible for proving that a product is safe or not? Should we just allow our accepted scientists, who may be economically co-opted to determine the course of events? Or should we demand that companies that want to potentially change the condition of the world prove that what they are doing is safe?

A realistic threshold need not undermine the current business model. Yet the current business model should not be allowed to potentially interfere with the liberty of the rest of humanity.

Strike a balance.
7.15.2006 2:22pm
guest:
Did Wendy Davis state in the article or elsewhere that she relied on The Rolling Stone article, or is that statement by DB just conjecture?
7.15.2006 2:29pm
TJIT (mail):
Gob Bluth,

Vaccines are not 100% effective. For any number of reasons individuals may not respond to the vaccine. Their immune system will not be primed to respond to pathogen exposure.

Herd immunity helps overcome this because if there are enough immune individuals in the population the pathogen can't establish itself in that population.

The vaccine failure rate worsens the free rider impact of those who don't vaccinate their children.

A quick look at the impact of an actual smallpox or pertusis infection on an individual shows just how cheap getting immunity from a vaccination is.
7.15.2006 2:33pm
Fran (mail) (www):
Gob Bluth

I appreciate your agreement on opting out and I understand that parents who opt out are in a sense free-riding. I should also note that states attempt to enforce vaccination by requiring vaccines to attend school (with appropriate religious exceptions). Of course, I doubt there are as many Christian Scientists as there are free-riders.

I find it fascinating that you seem to feel that I, a non-religious person, wouldn’t be allowed to exempt my child.

My view, for the record:
*The concept of vaccinations is good.
*The implementation of compulsory vaccinations in this country has saved lives.
* The current vaccination schedule:
http://www.cdc.gov/nip/recs/child-schedule-bw-print.pdf
*The current business model of vaccinations is not in the best interest of the country or its citizens.
7.15.2006 2:40pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
Or should we demand that companies that want to potentially change the condition of the world prove that what they are doing is safe?

Well, even supposing vaccines cause autism, they save countless lives. That's what I call "safe."
7.15.2006 2:41pm
Fran (mail) (www):
Robert Lyman

Interesting point.

What does that have to do with the possibility that the business models of vaccine makers is based on thimerasol(mercury) preserved vaccines compared to individual doses...no mercury...and the concept of 'saving lives'.

Being unaware of a problem does not the problem go away.
7.15.2006 2:48pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
I have not read the AJA article, but as a reporter, if I were going to write about thimerosol, I'd very very, very wary about using an ax-grinder as a source.

Fran's list is revealing. It mixes up really dangerous things with things that aren't dangerous at all: lead really is bad for you, dioxin (Agent Orange) is not, and corn syrup is good for you.

It doesn't take much to frighten him, so he embraces the precautionary principle. That was a risky principle for his son, though he may have lucked out, but impossible for a society, because too risky and too expensive.

Lawyers, especially, should be interested in vaccine researcher Dr. Paul Offit's 'The Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis.'

When I used Amazon to check the subtitle of Offit's book, the first many, many hits were all junk science hysteria and conspiracy titles. Ignorance and hysteria is way more dangerous to our children than Thimerosol.

Ming gives us reporters words to live by: 'Sometimes it is necessary, apropriate and effective to call egregious stupidity for what it is.'
7.15.2006 2:57pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
Fran,

Re: unawareness. That is quite true. But since perfect knowledge is impossible, you have to go with what you have and hope for the best. The FDA takes heat every time a "dangerous" drug slips through its process. It also takes heat (especially from victims of untreatable diseases) when it keeps potentially lifesaving drugs off the market because of safety worries. And of course there are plenty of cases where ugly side effects are justified by the desperate need for the drug. The FDA is struggling to strike the balance you want.

Their job would be easier if the news media were more circumspect in their reporting (for example, a "50% increase in heart attacks" sounds a lot worse than "from heart attacks in 1% of cases to 1.5%.")

In this case, David is criticizing just the sort of sloppy reporting that makes the balancing problem harder.

Now, if the mercury can be taken out of vaccines cheaply, I agree: why not do it? It hurts no one and maybe will lead to more vaccinations by worried parents. But if it raised the price 1000%, then it would be terrible idea given the current state of the data: fewer vaccinations and more money spent that could go to, say, prenatal care.
7.15.2006 3:06pm
some guest:
Of course, your dad really WAS ripped off by his broker. But all other plaintiffs are scum. We get it.
7.15.2006 3:17pm
triticale (mail) (www):
Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib story in a weekly magazine that has NYC movie and jazz club listings, "of all places." So what?

He may have damaged it, but given that the military already had a criminal investigation under way, it was not completely broken. How many entertainment oriented magazines addressed what went on at Abu Ghraib under Saddam?
7.15.2006 3:18pm
Señor Science:
While I am sceptical about thimerosal cuasing autism and Aspergers, organomercury cations ought to be avoided. In the body, the thimerosal beaks down into thiosalicylate and ethylmercury cation (EtHg+). Organomercury cations are very bad.

Here is a very good example of how toxic some mercury compounds can be.

I ought to note, though, the most claims of mercury and other heavy metals toxicities are very overstated, and that mercury metal om thermometers are of little danger to people.
7.15.2006 3:19pm
zzyz:
Wow, if you take out "thimerosal may cause autism" and put in "global warming doesn't exist", the letter still works!
7.15.2006 3:22pm
ech (mail):
Given that Thimerosal is in a phase-out for pediatric vaccinations, in several years we will be able to test the mercury-autism hypothesis.

The data already exist. Denmark phased out thimerosal in 1990 and autism rates continued to rise for years afterward.
See http://www.autism-biomed.org/thimerosal.htm for an abstract.
7.15.2006 3:22pm
Nothing Rhymes with Orange:
Good point Ech: Interrupted time series designs show no reliable change in autism prevalence (at the population level) as a function of the introduction and discontinuation of thimerosal vaccines.

A peer reviewed, comprehensive meta-analysis of the published literature on thimerosal-autism relationships is:

Parker SK et al. Thimerosal-containing vaccines and autistic spectrum disorder: a critical review of published original data. Pediatrics 2004; 144:793-804.

PDF

HTML

PubMed Abstract

CONCLUSION (from the Abstract):

Studies do not demonstrate a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and ASD, and the pharmacokinetics of ethylmercury make such an association less likely. Epidemiologic studies that support a link demonstrated significant design flaws that invalidate their conclusions. Evidence does not support a change in the standard of practice with regard to administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines in areas of the world where they are used.
7.15.2006 4:13pm
plunge (mail):
When partisanship and ideology are so rigid these days that it almost becomes teams, do people really even need to have a relationship to be biased?

I'm not saying you are, and I think this stuff is crank science too. But that little line just threw me. What does something like that prove to anyone anymore?
7.15.2006 5:02pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
It looks like we finally found a group of people who write more obscurely than attorneys - medical researchers.
7.15.2006 5:02pm
Waldensian (mail):
I've got a stake in this fight. I've got 8-year-old twins with autism. And not the "autism" of "autistic" people who submit lengthy posts to blogs about their unique personalities that need to be recognized as a distinct culture, etc. Those people, in my lay opinion, pretty clearly have Asperger's Syndrome (at worst), which is a whole different ball of wax.

No, my kids' autism means no conversational speech, the inability to live independently as adults, bizarre and unpredictable behavior, major sleep disturbances, an inability to comprehend dangerous situations, etc., etc. This is a good summary of what my kids are up against.

A few comments:

1. A lot of parents of autistic children want or need to blame something, and they believe in the vaccine connection. I am not one of them. I've read the science and I think the proposed mercury link is classic junk science pushed by plaintiffs' lawyers and people without credentials. Just out of curiousity, why does anyone care what Robert Kennedy Jr. thinks about difficult questions of human biology? I don't see anyone lining up to get my views on string theory, but I'm at least as qualified to do that as Kennedy is to opine about autism.

2. The vaccine theory of autism causation has a classic characteristic of junk science -- it unapologetically "morphs" as it runs afoul of the real science. Many, and perhaps most, of the people currently pushing the mercury link previously blamed the MMR vaccine. Vociferously. Google it, you'll see what I'm talking about. That alleged link was rather spectacularly discredited, although the Brits seem to be obsessed with it to this day. The interesting thing about all that is that the MMR vaccine never contained mercury.

I'm still waiting for a single proponent of the mercury theory to (a) admit they were wrong about the MMR, or (b) explain how it is that a condition previously and unambiguously caused by a mercury-free vaccine is now clearly caused by the mercury in vaccines. I'm not holding my breath, however, because the vaccine debate is not about science at all.

3. I am hugely grateful to Mr. Bernstein and others who go right at the purveyors of junk science and the credulous journalists who repeat their malarkey. You won't see me criticizing his tone. The thing we have to realize is that junk science has costs. Considerable resources are, and have been, expended on investigation of the vaccine theories (MMR and now mercury) even though real scientists are agreed that neither theory holds any promise for determining causes or treatments. This is an outrageous state of affairs.

My kids need help. Among other things, they need the limited research dollars and political capital available to us spent wisely, on real science that holds some hope of advancing our understanding of their condition. They don't need money poured down a rabbit hole because Robert Kennedy tells Rolling Stone we ought to.

Go get 'em, Mr. Bernstein. Both barrels.

A final thought: if you are in favor of small government, curtailed social spending, and low taxes, you don't have two kids with autism. :)
7.15.2006 5:15pm
Gob Bluth:
TJIT,

Thanks for the response.

Fran,
I was making no such statement. Please read my earlier posts. I certainly believe you can opt-out your child for whatever reasons you deem sufficient. I was merely trying to note two things, namely a) that states *attempt* to enforce vaccinations and b) what I understand to be the current exemption (i.e. religious).

In Missouri, for instance, there is only a religious exemption.
http://www.moga.mo.gov/statutes/c100-199/1670000181.htm

Check out subsections 3 and 4. The shorthand: If you don't file a religious exemption, the school must report you to the state's department of health.

If you've not already encountered it, I would check the laws in your state.
7.15.2006 5:26pm
Dr D (mail):
The ABA article is not derived from fringe science. You need to take into account scientific bias, fraud in scientific research, and corruption in physician organizations. The fabrication of scientific data and suppression of data occurs in a significant minority of research studies, especially when money and profits are involved. Vaccine complications are underreported and long term effects of vaccines,as well effects of combinations of vaccines, are not taken into consideration. Bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended giving some vaccines to newborns with scant research proving safety in newborns (misapplying data from older infants). Recommendations occur sometimes for political reasons or even when there are gross conflicts of interest. You lawyers should have a healthier skepticism about "scientific consensus". We were told in medical school that in 20 years at least 50% of what we were taught would be out of date and even false. There is junk science all the time in current medical journals.

As far as mercury goes, as was stated in another post it is one of the most toxic substances known to man. There are still vaccines in the U.S. vaccine stocks containing mercury, even though the substance is banned, and this is a disgrace. What about informed consent of the consumer? Do you want toxic banned substances to be injected into you or your children without your knowledge? On a separate but related issue, Sweden, and I think, Canada, have banned or are phasing out mercury from dental fillings.

In the U.S. there should (almost never) be any justification for coerced vaccination. At least in some European public education systems and armed forces vaccination is an individual decision, and it should be the same here. People have the ability to make their own decisions.

M.Davenport
7.15.2006 5:29pm
Waldensian (mail):

The ABA article is not derived from fringe science. You need to take into account scientific bias, fraud in scientific research, and corruption in physician organizations. The fabrication of scientific data and suppression of data occurs in a significant minority of research studies, especially when money and profits are involved. Vaccine complications are underreported and long term effects of vaccines,as well effects of combinations of vaccines, are not taken into consideration. Bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended giving some vaccines to newborns with scant research proving safety in newborns (misapplying data from older infants). Recommendations occur sometimes for political reasons or even when there are gross conflicts of interest. You lawyers should have a healthier skepticism about "scientific consensus". We were told in medical school that in 20 years at least 50% of what we were taught would be out of date and even false. There is junk science all the time in current medical journals.

I'm not sure I understand your point. Does the evidence indicate that mercury causes autism, or not?

If you think the mercury connection is good science, you've got some 'splaining to do. Of the studies finding no link between mercury and autism, which ones are themselves junk science? Which are the products of bias, fraud, or corruption? Which are fabricated? What was the profit motive for doing so? What are the political reasons or conflicts of interest that led to the bogus conclusions?
7.15.2006 5:43pm
volokh watcher (mail):
DB:

If there's a 1% chance that a largely unnecessary ingredient in vaccines will cause tens of thousands of children to suffer (like my son) from autism, do you think that ingredient should be purged?

[If this point has been made earlier, I apologize for not having the patience to plow through all the comments.]
7.15.2006 6:14pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Elemental Mercury (the kind in a thermoter)is nontoxic. I swallowed some from a broken thermometer back in my premed days just to freak out one of my wimpy lab partners. I admit I was a little nervous wondering if that textbook of toxicology was correct. 23 years later and I'm still here, although I have been accused of being an Asshole. Previous poster is correct, mercury ions are a different cation alltogether :).
7.15.2006 6:43pm
Nothing Rhymes with Orange:
Bruce: That’s a bit of a stretch. Most of the terms in my post could be inferred from context (interrupted time series design, autism spectrum disorder--ASD), are generally known by educated consumers of science (meta-analysis and epidemiology), or could easily be known with a Google word search (define: pharmacokinetics).

I understand the need to write for your audience. But this is the VC, and I would expect most people here to have decent scientific literacy.

Moreover, I suspect people who have little scientific background, or who are not willing to expend nominal effort to acquire such background, will be more easily seduced by claims based on junk science.

In case there was any confusion: Meta-analysis, which combines results of several studies on the same topic, can rule out the possibility that one or more studies of poor quality (e.g., those that include no placebo control group) skew the overall pattern of results. Interrupted time series designs, which measure diagnosis frequency before and after an event (thimerosal in vaccines), can examine the possibility that the introduction and deletion of thimerosal in vaccines varies with autism diagnosis (it doesn’t).

I’ve read your posts. We probably agree more than disagree on the primary conclusion (viz., there’s no reliable evidence for autism-thimerosal relationships). However, we may disagree on what people should know in order to inform themselves about the debate.
7.15.2006 6:44pm
Hans Gruber (www):
"The data already exist. Denmark phased out thimerosal in 1990 and autism rates continued to rise for years afterward. See http://www.autism-biomed.org/thimerosal.htm for an abstract."

Interesting. You know, Bernstein could post things like this, which would do more good than smearing people and motives. I am of the opinion that thimerosal should be removed from vaccinations (especially those given to the young) because of the known toxicity of organic mercury, not because it may cause autism.

Maybe Berstein's right, but inflammatory ad hominem devoid of facts or reasoning doesn't advance the debate.
7.15.2006 7:16pm
Hans Gruber (www):
"Elemental Mercury (the kind in a thermoter)is nontoxic."

This isn't true. While inorganic mercury is much less toxic than organic mercury, it should still be avoided. In particular, mercury vapor coming off of spilled elemental mercury is toxic. It's not that the mercury you swallowed wasn't toxic, it's that your body (thankfully) didn't absorb enough of it to do noticeable damage.
7.15.2006 7:23pm
Hans Gruber (www):
"Well, even supposing vaccines cause autism, they save countless lives. That's what I call "safe.""

Thimerosal is not a necessary ingredient. We can have vaccines and avoid exposing our children unnecessarily to mercury.
7.15.2006 7:30pm
Toby:
Here's a question to all you "why can't I opt out for *my* child" free riding neo-Luddites.

If my kids whose vaccine somehow didn't take, or folks with AIDS, or my parents win their 80's get one of these diseases from a mini-epidemic, can I hold you absolutely liable? Or perhaps as liable as you would hold a pharmacy company for side effect? Really? Thanks. Sign here, please, and then go ahead, be stupid.
7.15.2006 7:59pm
Toby:
Oh, I forget. I've got some more papers absolving society to have to pay for any long term medical care or institutionalyzation for your kid if he survices, but is damaged.
7.15.2006 8:00pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
When I was in high school physics and chemistry, we spent a good deal of time chasing gobs of mercury around lab tables, gathering it in filer paper, watching it roll aroud in our palms.

Still here, most of us, and those who aren't died in Nam. Class of '62.
7.15.2006 8:02pm
Nothing Rhymes with Orange:
HG: Before I bought your “is not necessary” claim, I would have to see a utility analysis of the cost of production for thimerosal versus non-thimerosal vaccines. Assuming that the cost of non-thimerosal vaccine production is no higher than that for thimerosal vaccines, I would tend to agree with you. But assuming that the cost of non-thimerosal vaccines is significantly higher (which could result in significantly fewer children being vaccinated), and given that thimerosal shows no link to autism (and assuming no other deleterious effects), I would re-consider.

Related: Assuming marginal profit for thimerosal relative to non-thimerosal vaccines, I suspect that many vaccine companies would switch to non-thimerosal production to avoid the prospect costly litigation. Several cases come to mind that have parallels (cf. silicon breast implants).

BTW: My apologies for attributing another person’s remarks to you re: Dred.
7.15.2006 8:04pm
guest:
Richard Aubrey:

I hope you understand that 1) injecting mercury into a small child's bloodstream is very different than putting mercury in your hands as a teenager, and 2) the fact that you and a few classmates are still alive is not predictive of the effects of anything on a larger population.
7.15.2006 8:08pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Well said, Waldensian.

I redid the Amazon search on 'vaccine' and while there are quite a few best-sellers that are obviously junk science (or worse); the real science guides (which are scarcer) sell much less well.

Professor Bernstein's comeuppance to the ABA journal editor is the sort of thing it takes to break through that sort of buzz, and probably it still won't work.

I don't suppose you've had any reaction from the editor?
7.15.2006 8:18pm
Tool:

Professor Bernstein's comeuppance to the ABA journal editor is the sort of thing it takes to break through that sort of buzz, and probably it still won't work.


I am entirely ignorant of most science beyond what I learned in school, and so have absolutly no relevant opinion on the substance of this matter. However, to imagine that Bernstein's "comeuppance" is "the sort of thing that it takes to break through that sort of buzz" is ludacris.

I have no idea what inspired such vitrol from Mr. Bernstein, nor do I care, but it is the kind of easily ignored spew that does nothing to "cut through the buzz" and instead just adds another layer of crap to the buzz. Angry rhetoric from the likes of DB (whos positions are generally identical to mine, but whos writing makes my teeth hurt) does nothing but further entrench everyone into thier previously held positions.

Several folks who joined into this discussion have made the same points as DB in a manner that is infinatly more persuasive, reasonable, and readable.

It makes me wonder why/how DB got to be a VC contributor in the first place. In my mind his commentaries are generally right and sometimes interesting, but inarticulate and unoriginal in a manner that doesn't measure up to the bar set by EV, SV, Ilya Somin (perhaps my favorite), etc...
7.15.2006 9:00pm
Waldensian (mail):

Professor Bernstein's comeuppance to the ABA journal editor is the sort of thing it takes to break through that sort of buzz, and probably it still won't work.

Sadly I must agree on both fronts. The vaccine theory will likely live on, in some form, because besieged parents desperately need something and/or someone to blame autism on, and plaintiffs' lawyers perceive they can make money with it.

Unfortunately, it's quite clear that actual science is fundamentally irrelevant to both groups.

If you want to hear about some real unscientific and ad hominem attacks, talk to any researcher who has published a study discrediting the vaccine/autism link, or even a less "controversial" study suggesting that genetics and unknown environmental causes are to blame. No kidding, look some of them up and e-mail them and ask them about their experiences. I have. Many of them have received truly vitriolic hate mail on the subject. Incredible stuff.

The vaccine theory also plays to the mindsets of those who enjoy or are drawn to conspiracy theories. I read and hear about how the "drug companies and the CDC" are in cahoots to cover up the evils of vaccines, mercury, etc. etc. Puh-leeze. I am still waiting to meet the CDC official who is willing to consign my sons, and children of the future, to a life of autism in order to cover up some nefarious plot.

(If and when I do meet such people, rest assured, they'll be disappointed in my views on the 2nd Amendment. So it's a good thing they don't exist.)

To my mind, we just have to keep fighting the battle against destructive wasteful crappy science and the blithering idiots who push it. I'm darn glad Prof. Bernstein (sorry I kept calling you "Mr.") is doing so.

We have to refuse to be silent during uninformed cocktail party theorizing.

We have to refuse to sit idly by while mediocre journalists regurgitate bogus theories and erroneously declare that there is an actual scientific debate.

We have to refuse to let bloviating blogging about the untrustworthiness of modern medical research, etc., distract us from what are really very simple questions: do vaccines cause autism, or not? If you think they do, what is your evidence? And how do you respond -- in substance -- to the studies that say otherwise?

The stakes are just too high, for kids with autism and without. Vaccines save lives and are a genuine miracle of modern medicine.

Meanwhile, my kids need real science paid for by copious amounts of your tax dollars. I tell you, I'm a freaking Great Society / New Dealer / Swedish socialist on this topic. :)

Yeah, I'm really full of opinions and verbiage. But autism is a very, very big part of my life. I'm probably not even done yet.
7.15.2006 9:07pm
Salaryman (mail):
I'm coming to this late, but frankly I just don't get the outrage at Prof. Bernstein's criticism of the article for relying entirely on secondary sources (assuming he's accurately described the article), especially since there doesn't appear to be much support for the Thimerosal/autism connection.

Moreover, I'm not at all outraged by his use of the term "lazy" to describe the reporter's behavior. If I were rushing to get a brief out the door, and got a citation for a non-controversial principle of law from a well respected secondary source without actually reading the case myself (not that I've ever done this, of course) I would be being lazy. Now I might be cutting that particular corner that because I'm on a strict deadline and am highly confident that Bernard Witkin or whoever edits his treatises these days knows California law many many times better than, say, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. knows what causes autism. Nonetheless, what I've done is not take the time to do the job right, so I'd hardly be in any position to take offense if someone characterized my behavior as "lazy."

If Ms. Davis could have found studies debunking the connection and didn't make the effort to do so, why is that not a proper subject of criticism, and why is characterizing this as "lazy" unfair criticism?
7.15.2006 9:22pm
Bob Loblaw (www):

It's like the old joke about lawyers in oral argument: if the law is against you, argue the facts; if the facts are against you, argue the law; and if the facts and law are against you, bang on the table. I think you're banging on the table here, and I wonder why.
FWIW, that's not how the joke goes. It goes:

If the law is against you, pound the facts; if the facts are against you, pound the law; if both are against you, pound the table.
7.15.2006 9:57pm
Gob Bluth:
All I have to say to that is "Blah, Blah, Blah."
7.15.2006 10:09pm
tioedong (mail) (www):
CDC LINK
Cdc removed the stuff a couple years ago, and the last vaccine using it became out of date in 2003.
I am old enough to remember when "autism" was blamed on "cold mothering"...and I worked at a state school for the retarded years ago and many of the retarded had behaviors that are now called "autistic".
In the 1940's, it was blamed on mom, in the 1950's on DPT, and in the 1990's on measles vaccine.
Ironically, lead poisoning due to paint, a common problem is rarely blamed in the hysteria...and we screen for this in certain populations.
Also ignored: That MMR vaccine, which is measles mumps and rubella, has probably prevented many cases of dementia or "autism" or retardation...one known cause of retardation with autistic behavior is fetal rubella syndrome, and both measles and mumps can cause encephalitis which also causes brain damage.
There IS a syndrome of autism, but I didn't have any in my practice as a GP...what I saw was children with retardation and pervasive developmental disorder whose parents denied they were retarded, and claimed they were "autistic".
I suspect that "retardation" is something to be ashamed of, but autism is more acceptable, due to the movie Rain Man
7.15.2006 10:27pm
Hans Gruber (www):
Thanks for the link DB.

Wow. I never thought I'd be defending a Kennedy, but here it goes. While the "debunking" Berstein links to has a few good points, it doesn't destroy the piece in Rolling Stone. Not by a long shot. Sadly, the piece in Rolling Stone was far more informative and persuasive than DB's post.

On a specific point: I agree that the increase in autism might be caused by changes in diagnosis. But most autistics are severely disabled. A commenter above suggests that children who are diagnosed today as autistic might have been diagnosed as mentally retarded 30 or 40 years ago. For this theory to hold true, though, we would have to see fewer children diagnosed with diseases that resemble autism as we see increases in autism. Is this borne out by the data? Has mental retardation, for example, become less common as autism has exploded?
7.15.2006 11:13pm
Hans Gruber (www):
"I suspect that "retardation" is something to be ashamed of, but autism is more acceptable, due to the movie Rain Man."

I agree. Ironic that the individual that "Rain Man" was based upon was not even autistic! Nor did his condition resemble autism. Yet every American's conception of autism is shaped by that movie.
7.15.2006 11:14pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
"Organic" mercury is an oxymoron, like a semi-automatic assault rifle or military inteligence. "Organic" chemical compounds are those that contain carbon and hydrogen and were once thought to only to originate from living organisms, hence the name "Organic". The vapor pressure of Mercury is .000185 Torr(millimeters of Mercury)at 25degrees C. While .000185 millimetres is an awful small number, it does correlate to an equilibrium mercury concentration from that glob of mercury from the broken thermometer of 20mg/cubic meter, while the ACGIH(American Council of Government Industrial Hyginiests) establishes .05mg/cubic meter as the upper limit for continuous exposure.
7.15.2006 11:36pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I'm an excellent driver by the way. Its a 1949 Buick Roadmaster,Straight 8 Fireball 8. Only 8.895 production models. Dad let me drive it slow on the driveway, but not on Monday, definately not on Monday.
7.15.2006 11:43pm
Robin Roberts (mail) (www):
Good for Bernstein for calling out this kind of very dangerous junk science. These claims have been used for years by anti-vaccination zealots to scare people away from important vaccinations of children.
7.15.2006 11:46pm
NRWO:
Waldensian:

You probably already know this, but . . .

One of the most comprehensive sources for the latest treatments and diagnostic techniques for medical disorders is here. The link for autism is here.
7.15.2006 11:56pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Nothing Rhymes with Orange:

I pretty much do agree with your posts, and think I pretty much do understand what was posted. I was just getting a chuckle out of the fact that the writing that you posted is as complex as any that we attorneys generate. This was not aimed as a slam, but merely an observation.

Face it, when we are writing for our peers, we aren't writing for the general public. So, sorry if you thought that I was complaining or criticizing - I wasn't.
7.16.2006 12:13am
Waldensian (mail):
Tieodong writes:


There IS a syndrome of autism, but I didn't have any in my practice as a GP...what I saw was children with retardation and pervasive developmental disorder whose parents denied they were retarded, and claimed they were "autistic". I suspect that "retardation" is something to be ashamed of, but autism is more acceptable, due to the movie Rain Man

Autism and PDD are not necessarily exclusive. Although there is still a lot of loose lingo in the autism world, "autism" is generally thought of as the most severe of a range of conditions now labeled pervasive developmental disorders. See the discussion of that here.

One of my kids clearly has autistic disorder under the DSM criteria. I suspect you would pick him out as "truly" autistic right away. He also is mentally retarded. I've always thought that giving him even nonverbal intelligence tests was like testing the apple-ness of a banana, however.

My other son is apparently right on the fuzzy borderline between autism and the next rung "up" (perhaps PDD-NOS). I've also seen his condition, or something like it, described as "semantic-pragmatic disorder," for what that's worth. You get a bit jaded about the diagnostic game after a while. :) The various clinicians do not consider him to be mentally retarded, but his behavior and communication skills are powerfully unusual and never, ever boring.

In any event, I've also long suspected that the autism "epidemic" is in part driven by parents fleeing the even more stigmatizing "retarded" label. Just think how often you hear that word "retarded" used as an epithet, even by doctors; it's pretty shocking. For example, the widely reported and truly heartwarming story about the "autistic" kid who had a great basketball game featured a kid that, to my untrained eyes at least, didn't seem all that autistic.

My uneducated reading of the various studies, however, leads me to conclude that the jury is still out on whether we are seeing a "real" increase in autism or just a reshuffling of the diagnostic labels. Good studies have drawn different conclusions. I think we just don't know enough yet, in part because the diagnostic criteria were even looser a few years ago than they are now -- and that's saying something.

Hans Gruber writes:


Ironic that the individual that "Rain Man" was based upon was not even autistic! Nor did his condition resemble autism. Yet every American's conception of autism is shaped by that movie.

I agree with your first and last sentences, and it is indeed quite ironic. I'd take (slight) issue with the idea that his condition didn't resemble autism, however -- I'd say that some of his behavior and traits are reminiscent of autism.

One interesting thing that movie did was to give laypersons a concept of "autism" that actually is far higher functioning (to use a somewhat inartful phrase) than the majority of autistic people. This misperception by the public is furthered by people who describe themselves as "autistic" when really they have Aspergers or some similar disorder.
7.16.2006 12:13am
Waldensian (mail):

You probably already know this, but . . .


I wish I did, but at least I do now -- many thanks!

Darn, this is a short post for me..... :)
7.16.2006 12:16am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
As I noted earlier, I am no expert in this. I just have a good friend with AS, and she has done work with fairly high functioning autistics. And, to understand her and what she has gone through working with autistics, I have done some research. But clearly, not as much as those, like Waldensian, who have to deal with it on a routine, personal basis.

But as I understand it, at least according to a paper I recently read by Baron-Cohen, the difference between high functioning autism and Asperger's is that the former typically has delayed language development, while the later does not. On the other hand, I have also seen them treated as a continium, with Asperger's being essentially mild autism.

I do agree a lot with what Waldensian said about how this is trying to find a culprit, when there really might not be one, and that it is most likely diverting resources from where they could more effectively be spent.
7.16.2006 12:27am
NRWO:
BH:

Damn Hemingway and Orwell's admonition that writing be clear and concise. Obscure, discipline-specific terminology probably increases marginal value of work products in technical fields.

Could you give me an obscure synonym for neuropsychopharmacology? Please?
7.16.2006 1:05am
Waldensian (mail):

But as I understand it, at least according to a paper I recently read by Baron-Cohen, the difference between high functioning autism and Asperger's is that the former typically has delayed language development, while the later does not.

This is pretty much my understanding as well, although "delayed" is a euphemism here. I've read in several places that about half of all people with autism proper can't speak at all, which is pretty consistent with what I see at my son's school. Meanwhile, I was told by one PhD that if you don't develop conversational speech by age 5, you generally don't develop it ever. That was a fun moment.

With respect to communication skills, the difference between Aspergers and autistic disorder is usually quite striking. The few people with Aspergers I know also don't exhibit the stereotypical physical behaviors often associated with autism. Aspergers is no picnic, but in my limited experience autism is a vastly more disabling condition.


On the other hand, I have also seen them treated as a continium, with Asperger's being essentially mild autism.

Also consistent with what I've read. A lot of researchers think the two conditions are different ends of one spectrum; hence Aspergers is often referred to as one of many ASDs ("autism spectrum disorders").

I know one researcher who believes that what we think of as the "engineer personality" is actually at the top end of the autism spectrum (!). She thinks this, combined with the (well established) hereditary nature of autism, may explain the high incidence of autism in communities with lots of engineers. I'm not even remotely qualified to offer an opinion on that theory!
7.16.2006 2:10am
Auxin:
See also this just-published article:

Pervasive Developmental Disorders in Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Prevalence and Links With Immunizations
Eric Fombonne et al.

PEDIATRICS Vol. 118 No. 1 July 2006, pp. e139-e150
7.16.2006 2:50am
Auxin:
"Conclusions. No evidence was found to support a distinct syndrome of MMR-induced autism or of "autistic enterocolitis." These results add to the recent accumulation of large-scale epidemiologic studies that all failed to support an association between MMR and autism at population level. When combined, the current findings do not argue for changes in current immunization programs and recommendations."
7.16.2006 2:52am
zooba:
Harry Eagar:
Corn syrup is good for you?!
7.16.2006 3:46am
Daryl Herbert (www):
"Of all places" is just an attempt to assert a claim is false without doing any work.

I disagree. David did not say "hey Rolling Stone said it so it must be false," what he said was basically "hey, Rolling Stone is the best this person could do--not JAMA, not some other scientific journal, not Nature magazine--just Rolling Stone. That's it."
7.16.2006 8:22am
Waldensian (mail):

I disagree. David did not say "hey Rolling Stone said it so it must be false," what he said was basically "hey, Rolling Stone is the best this person could do--not JAMA, not some other scientific journal, not Nature magazine--just Rolling Stone. That's it."

I concur. The fact that a theory about the cause of autism is published in Rolling Stone as compared to a peer reviewed journal is one fact, among many, to consider when examining the claim.

But remember, the vaccine theorists aren't engaged in science -- their claims apparently cannot be falsified -- so the lack of peer review is just one of a mountain of things they gladly ignore....

And I hope corn syrup is good for me.
7.16.2006 11:59am
MikeD:
Hi again, all.

Just to clarify a couple of things:

1. "Organic mercury" refers to mercury atoms that are chemically bonded to organic functional groups. Dimethyl mercury, for example, is a mercury atom with two methyl groups (CH3) attached. This is what another poster meant by "organic mercury". All toxic heavy metals are far more dangerous in this form than in elemental (pure metal) form. That's one reason why tetraethyl lead was eliminated from gasoline formulations, for example.

2. AFAIK eliminating thimerosal doesn't increase the production costs of vaccines by any significant amount. What it does is reduce shelf-life, which can result in cost increases from various directions down the line. I don't know if anyone has done a really comprehensive study on it, but my impression is that eliminating thimerosal really isn't introducing significant additional cost to vaccines. (If it was, though, it would truly be a crime to eliminate it).

3. Moving to single dose loaded syringes where shelf life is less critical makes sense for a bunch of other reasons, so it may well have been underway by now even if there was no thimerosal issue. My impression, again, is that this is not dramatically raising costs per dose. We get a yield boost from syringes anyway because we don't have to overload the dispensing vials to compensate for physicians not extracting all the contents with a hypodermic.

4. It's ridiculous to suggest that people like me decry "junk science" because we are some kind of mindless zombie slaves to our employers. First of all, I'm posting anonymously, and second of all, if my boss caught me condemning thimerosal on some internet comment board, I'm quite certain there would be no real consequences, apart from some ribbing about being gullible.

Hey lawyers - am I doing OK avoiding dense technical writing? I like to explain technical stuff to non-tech people, so I'm trying to get good at it.
7.16.2006 12:01pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
June 1, 1974 the Dodgers beat the Cubs 10-0 at Wrigley Field. Andy Messersmith pitched a shutout, Ron Cey drove in 7 runs with 2 homeruns and Steve Garvey scored 2 runs despite going 0 for 4. I don't have to look this stuff up, its all in my mind but it can drive you nuts in everyday life. I too, recieved vaccinations containing Thimerosol.
7.16.2006 12:15pm
not_paranoid_enough (mail):
Normally, I trust the medical-pharmaceutical complex as far as I can throw them. But when the possibility for class action litigation with sympathetic plaintiffs like the parents of autistic children is added, I would imagine they become downright dangerous - somewhere in the continuum between a rabid mountain lion on PCP and a troop of baboons on crack.

Some people in my family have a genetic condition that effects iron absorbtion, and there is some speculation that it might effect how other metals are metabolized, so no mercury-containing vaccines for me. And don't even think about giving them to any future children. Thanks, though. I appreciate the gesture. It's the thought that counts.
7.16.2006 12:35pm
Bpbatista (mail):
Why any sane lawyer would have anything to do with the crack-pots at the ABA is beyond me. If you haven't done so already, quit your membership.
7.16.2006 1:51pm
Waldensian (mail):

Normally, I trust the medical-pharmaceutical complex as far as I can throw them. But when the possibility for class action litigation with sympathetic plaintiffs like the parents of autistic children is added, I would imagine they become downright dangerous - somewhere in the continuum between a rabid mountain lion on PCP and a troop of baboons on crack.

Of course -- the "medical-pharmaceutical complex"!! It's all so clear to me now. And just in time, too; the MPC (that's what I'll call it now that you've lifted the veil from my eyes), being just like "baboons on crack" in the face of sympathetic parents like me, must have assigned a simian hit squad to get me. Time to go to the bunker. Perhaps spread some poisoned bananas outside the door.

Thank God you posted.

In all seriousness, I'm learning something reading these posts. For many people, the vaccine/autism "debate" is simply a new venue for them to weigh in with their tired, half-baked notions and potshots regarding doctors and drug companies.

I'm so glad for them to have this opportunity.

Good luck with the hemochromatosis (if that's what you're referring to); it runs in my family too.
7.16.2006 1:58pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Corn syrup is mostly fructose -- that's why it's called high fructose corn syrup -- same stuff you get in apples, without the fiber.

Disparaging remarks about sweeteners, of any kind, is diagnostic of general nuttiness. Anti-sweetener Personality Disorder.
7.16.2006 2:32pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I personally don't think vaccination should be required, it sucks to be the kid of parents who make bad decisions but not getting vaccinated is just one of 100s of bad choices their parents will make before the poor kid can escape. I'm one of the few people who recieved the small pox vaccination 4 times,once as a child and 3 military related sticks due to paperwork problems. I'm planning on being the Omega Man when AlKaida drops the bigone.
7.16.2006 4:30pm
byomtov (mail):
There needs to be less focus on debating scientific non-issues stirred up by political activists, attorneys, and the media, and more on promoting responsibility for all these actors.

I agree. I hope you will extend your campaign against the promtion of ignorance to items like NR's article on ID discussed below.
7.16.2006 5:20pm
not_paranoid_enough (mail):
In all seriousness, I'm learning something reading these posts. For many people, the vaccine/autism "debate" is simply a new venue for them to weigh in with their tired, half-baked notions and potshots regarding doctors and drug companies.

Right, anytime anyone expresses any kind of suspicion of drug companies or doctors they are mentally ill and paranoid.

Good luck with the hemochromatosis (if that's what you're referring to); it runs in my family too.

Have you investigated whether there's a link? Even the "conspiracy" theory sources?
7.16.2006 6:17pm
zooba:
Harry:
I'm not saying that the bottle of Coca-Cola is going to wake you up in the middle of the night and stab you, but I don't think filling your food with empty calories is "good" for you.
7.16.2006 7:25pm
Waldensian (mail):

Right, anytime anyone expresses any kind of suspicion of drug companies or doctors they are mentally ill and paranoid.

Nice strawman.

I didn't say you were mentally ill or paranoid. I said some persons' potshots were tired and half-baked. Since you suggested the "medical-pharmaceutical complex" would behave, and I quote, "somewhere in the continuum between a rabid mountain lion on PCP and a troop of baboons on crack," I guess I'll group you among those persons.

If had called you paranoid, perhaps I would have justified it by noting that you post under the name of "not_paranoid_enough." But I didn't call you paranoid.

Meanwhile, no -- I've never investigated the link between hemochromatosis and mercury, vaccines, or autism, even in "conspiracy theory sources." Are you speaking of Rolling Stone?
7.16.2006 7:56pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
zooba, it might appear that sugar is OT, but not really.

Anybody who uses the phrase 'empty calories' is exhibiting ASPD.

We need calories to live. Much of world is short, in some cases desperately short, of calories.

Calories are good for you. Sugar is an inexpensive way to get calories inside, and just under 10% of all the calories consumed in the world today come as sugar.

Scratch an ASPD sufferer and you always, sooner or later, find not a nutritional but a moral aversion to sugar.

It's another aspect of the same attitude we have been exploring here of mystical mumbojumbo masquerading as criticism of science.

Science needs criticism. But witchcraft doesn't do the job.
7.16.2006 11:16pm
Toby:
Harry:

May I use you sign off as my sig?

tc
7.16.2006 11:46pm
Robert Lyman (mail):
I'm not saying that the bottle of Coca-Cola is going to wake you up in the middle of the night and stab you

Of course not. All but the most frail among us could easily overpower a bottle of Coke. To have any chance, it needs to stab you while you're still asleep.
7.17.2006 1:01am
not_paranoid_enough (mail):
Waldensian-

Since you suggested the "medical-pharmaceutical complex" would behave, and I quote, "somewhere in the continuum between a rabid mountain lion on PCP and a troop of baboons on crack," I guess I'll group you among those persons.

And you'd be wrong. There are all kinds of mainstream evidence of misconduct and conflicts of interest by the drug companies. Take the initiative to psychologically screen every citizen in the US, starting with children in school. It started in TX and is being pushed by the administration and there is some well-documented big pharma influence. Note especially the PA state official that quit his job when he learned what was really going on.

Meanwhile, no -- I've never investigated the link between hemochromatosis and mercury, vaccines, or autism, even in "conspiracy theory sources." Are you speaking of Rolling Stone?

I'm not trying to be insulting here, I mean this with respect: Maybe you should consider looking into it? I don't have anything at my fingertips, I would pass it along if I did. Note that I have run into some pretty vicious and insulting, eugenics-like stuff trying to link people with a celtic background to autism and other maladies while researching on-line. Some of it from what seemed like credentialed people.
7.17.2006 1:36am
H2:
I may have missed this point if posted, but isn't it true that if a virus gets hold in a population it could change itself so that the original vaccine would no longer work at all and then everyone would be in trouble?

Also, I think it is quite paranoid to be worried about the low risks of vaccinations versus the real risks of contracting a disease and its consequences.

Are these children never going to travel internationally?
7.17.2006 1:49am
Harry Eagar (mail):
Toby, I'd be honored.
7.17.2006 3:35am
not_paranoid_enough (mail):
H2-

Also, I think it is quite paranoid to be worried about the low risks of vaccinations versus the real risks of contracting a disease and its consequences.

Not if the risks aren't low and the consequences are the permanent loss of the normal development of the child. I'm not saying that's the case, but if I had kids I would be suspicious of vaccines in general, and wouldn't allow my kids to get those that contained mercury.

Are these children never going to travel internationally?

Well when they are going to Cancun on spring break in college their development will be pretty much concluded. And those brain cells trained to withstand beer funnels will be much tougher customers.(kidding, obviously)
7.17.2006 11:17am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
H2

Some viruses mutate quite readily, and others do not. You are most likely thinking of the flu, which does mutate a lot. It is one of the tricks that virus utilizes to spread. But my understanding is that the viruses, etc. that are the usual target of vacines (excluding, of course, the flu vacine that has to be reconstituted ever year) mutate much more slowly. Possibly that is because they are mostly a lot more virulent than most of the flu viruses. Just as different animals have different survival strategies, the same thing applies to viruses.
7.17.2006 2:16pm
dweeb:
Toby:
Oh, I forget. I've got some more papers absolving society to have to pay for any long term medical care or institutionalyzation for your kid if he survices, but is damaged.

Fine, Toby, and I trust you're prepared to sign similar papers, or surrender your right to french fries, beer, and any other personal risks you wish to take.
7.17.2006 4:11pm
dweeb:
4. It's ridiculous to suggest that people like me decry "junk science" because we are some kind of mindless zombie slaves to our employers.

Perhaps they're just suggesting that someone bright enough to get an advanced science degree is also bright enough to figure out on which side their bread is buttered?
7.17.2006 4:17pm
Public_Defender (mail):
When the President of the United States thinks that "Intelligent Design" is good science, the standard is pretty low.

At worst, the ABA reporter is as thoughtful and fair about science matters as President Bush.
7.17.2006 5:31pm
dweeb:
But if it raised the price 1000%, then it would be terrible idea given the current state of the data: fewer vaccinations and more money spent that could go to, say, prenatal care.

If the resources exist to be given to Michael Jackson in exchange for mediocre music, and, in turn spent on molesting children and paying lawyers to get him off, if the resources exist to buy NFL or MLB personal seat licenses, thus making millionaires out of those whose contributions can be outdone by trained animals, so they can wreck cars and rape groupies, if the resources exist to give welfare checks to crack whores, junkies, etc., then I don't think society will miss the comparative drop in the bucket to get the mercury out of our children's vaccines.

Before I bought your “is not necessary” claim, I would have to see a utility analysis of the cost of production for thimerosal versus non-thimerosal vaccines.

That would have to include the increased handling and logistical costs of multi-dose packaging (storage, tracking how many doses have been used from a vial, separate inventory for syringes, needles, the cost of waste and other shrinkage sources, etc.

Assuming that the cost of non-thimerosal vaccine production is no higher than that for thimerosal vaccines, I would tend to agree with you. But assuming that the cost of non-thimerosal vaccines is significantly higher (which could result in significantly fewer children being vaccinated),

As noted above, society wastes far more on fluff than it would on more expensive vaccines, and given the number who opt out, legally and otherwise, eliminating the focus of their objections would result in more children being vaccinated.

There's another cost to multi-use dosages no one's considered - is there any evidence that thimerosal is effective at preventing the transmission of the presumed pathogens for CJD, which have already proven invulnerable to sterilization?
7.17.2006 6:21pm
Deoxy (mail):
bweeb:
"Fine, Toby, and I trust you're prepared to sign similar papers, or surrender your right to french fries, beer, and any other personal risks you wish to take."

You know, that used to be an inherent part of the social contract. I wish it still was.

"If the resources exist to be given to Michael Jackson in exchange for mediocre music, and, in turn spent on molesting children and paying lawyers to get him off, if the resources exist to buy NFL or MLB personal seat licenses, thus making millionaires out of those whose contributions can be outdone by trained animals, so they can wreck cars and rape groupies, if the resources exist to give welfare checks to crack whores, junkies, etc., then I don't think society will miss the comparative drop in the bucket to get the mercury out of our children's vaccines."

This is not just about US, but also about many other areas of the world, especially the third world, where the price of vaccines ALREADY gets in the way.

Harry Eagar: sugar.

In general, I agree that some people are quite psychotic about it... however, there is an ongoing and worsening epidemic of diabetes in this country, which seems to correspond VERY well to over-consumption of refind sugars and "high-fructose" corn syrup (which is not quite the same thing as what's in apples, by the way).

Having several diabetic relatives (and a recently diagnosed diabetic friend), I can tell you that refined sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup) behave quite diffrently in the body than naturally occuring sugars.

When one is running short on calories, worrying about the long-term impact of rfined sugars in your body is rather silly... but we don't exactly have that problem in this country, eh?

For the record, I also think most artificial sweeteners are a terribly bad idea, as well. Mostly, we need to just stop messing with out food so much and get used to things not being ridiculously sweet all the time.

(As an aside, "sugar" is an incredibly generic term - for goodness sake, "lactose" is a form of sugar! Every food you will ever eat has some form of "sugar" in it! OK, well, not quite all, but really close. What people are generally campaining against is "refined" sugar - generally, cane sugar, but high-fructose corn syrup also fits the bill.)
7.18.2006 5:36pm
Deoxy (mail):
Oh, almost forgot: I've known about the thimerosal debate for years, known that thimerosal contains some minute trace amount of mercury, and I mad sure my kids were vaccinated, thimerosal or not.

Distant, undefined, tiny risk of some brain problem

VS

Real, defined, significant risk of fatal or near fatal disease

No brainer.
7.18.2006 5:38pm